JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for the expulsion of the local director of Human Rights Watch, rejecting an appeal against a lower court's decision and sparking fierce criticism by rights groups that the ruling would harm freedom of expression and their work in the country.
The director, Omar Shakir, a U.S. citizen, was initially ordered to leave the country because Israel charged that his advocacy against Israel's Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank amounted to support for the Palestinian-led boycott movement.
An Israeli law from 2017 bars entry to those who publicly support a boycott of Israel or its West Bank settlements. Shakir's case has been followed closely internationally as a litmus test for how Israel would enforce the controversial legislation.
"Does Israel want to join the ranks of countries like Iran, North Korea and Cuba that block access for Human Rights Watch staff? Today's decision will have significant ramifications," Shakir said.
"It really goes to the heart of what kind of country Israel is and wants to become in the future," he added.
Tuesday's ruling came after a lengthy legal saga in which Shakir challenged the decision to expel him, with a lower court siding with the state. Shakir was allowed to remain in Israel for the duration of the proceedings.
The judge who wrote the decision appeared to play down its potential future impact on other rights groups and activists.
"There is nothing in the decision to reflect upon other human rights organizations and activists," Justice Neal Hendel wrote. His ruling primarily dealt with the legality of the decision to expel Shakir rather than the 2017 boycott law. The court gave Shakir 20 days to leave the country and ordered him to pay the legal fees associated with the case.
Human Rights Watch says neither it nor Shakir have called for an outright boycott of Israel. The organization said that Shakir, who took up the director position in 2016, was being targeted because of the rights group's opposition to Israel's settlements in the West Bank, as well as the group's calls for companies to stop working with the settlements.
It warned of the decision's consequences.
"The Supreme Court has effectively declared that free expression in Israel does not include completely mainstream advocacy for Palestinian rights," said Kenneth Roth, the group's executive director. "There's no telling whom it will throw out next."
Other rights organizations also lambasted the ruling. Amnesty International called it "reprehensible" and a "cowardly move."
"The court has made it explicitly clear that those who dare to speak out about human rights violations by the Israeli authorities will be treated as enemies of the state," the group said in a statement.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. Palestinians seek these territories for a future state. Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal.
Israel has adopted a tough stance in recent years toward the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which it says is aimed at delegitimizing Israel's existence and wiping it off the map. The BDS movement says it is a non-violent campaign for Palestinian rights and says it does not endorse a specific solution to the conflict.
Maurice Hirsch, a lawyer for the pro-Israel NGO Monitor group, which joined the case against Shakir, said it had presented evidence going back to 2010 of Shakir publicly supporting BDS.
Hirsch said the ruling requiring Shakir to leave Israel was "an important expression of Israeli democracy."
"The court confirms that, while in Israel, Shakir spent his time unjustifiably vilifying Israel and promoting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activities," he said. "Despite his claims, Shakir's work had very little, if anything, to do with protecting human rights."